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‘If it wasn’t for the helmet, I wouldn’t be here’

Blackpool Crew Members Simon and Kyle tell us about the action, training and kit behind the capsize footage shown on the new BBC1 series Saving Lives at Sea.

When Blackpool volunteer crew Simon, Kyle and Daz launched to rescue a stranger, they had no expectation of being thrown out of their lifeboat and into the water. Thankfully, years of RNLI training had prepared them for the unexpected.

‘Training is brilliant. It’s a fantastic insight into what could happen. Our kit also proved itself,’ volunteer crew member of 17 years Simon Hoole. It’s from a camera on Simon’s helmet that we get the dramatic footage of this capsize shown on Saving Lives at Sea.

Volunteers account for 95% of RNLI people and this includes 4,700 volunteer crew members. With only one in ten coming from a professional maritime occupation, training our volunteers is essential. It’s thanks to this training, which costs £1,569 per crew member a year, that funeral worker Kyle King learned the skills, from boathandling to first aid and from navigation to fire safety, to help those in trouble at sea.

Kit that’s fit for purpose

RNLI crew kit complements the training – its purpose is to maximise crew safety and give them the best possible equipment for saving others. To kit an inshore crew member like Kyle costs £1,881 and this includes the helmet that he believes saved his life.

Inshore lifeboat crew members wear a onesie-style ‘woolly-bear’ suit on top of their normal clothes to stay warm. This is followed by a drysuit with inbuilt steel-capped wellies to keep out the water. The lifejacket and helmet complete the outfit.

‘The lifejacket is equipped with a red smoke flare on the left, a satellite GPS personal locator beacon on the right. A whistle, torch, knife are also within reach, along with a buddy line to attach ourselves to others and safety lines so we can hook onto boats,’ explains Simon.

St Agnes Crew Members Gavin, Gavin and Richard, kitted up for service

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

St Agnes Crew Members Gavin, Gavin and Richard, kitted up for service

‘The flare worked perfectly despite being underwater’

‘Our boat did a back flip, bow over stern. Kyle and I had been at the front so were thrown out and up into the air. As the helm, Daz was at the back so found himself under the boat,’ recalls Simon.

‘We went up like a kite. I could feel the lifeboat flutter like a mattress on the air. It felt like we were falling for a long time and then under water for at least a minute – but I can see from looking at the footage that it was only a few seconds,’ adds Kyle, who has been on the crew for 10 years.

‘Once in the water, I just thought: “Did that really happen?” I took out a flare to let the other lifeboat know we needed them. A big wave came and swamped us as I took it out, but it worked perfectly despite being underwater.

‘Next I made my way to the lifeboat, but a breaking wave pushed the boat into me and nearly knocked me out. If it wasn’t for the helmet, I wouldn’t be here.

‘It was too dangerous for us to try to right the boat. Simon pulled me away.'

Simon adds: ‘Our lifejackets are inherently buoyant so we were kept afloat. I held on to the grab handle at the back of Kyle’s lifejacket and never let go at any point.

‘Going through the pier was not the nicest thing. Good job we had the helmets – we kept hitting the tops of our heads on the metal bars. They saved us from serious injury.’

Alerted by Kyle’s flare, Blackpool’s second D class lifeboat was at the ready to pick them up on the other side of the pier. Simon, Darren and Kyle were all back out on the water a week later. And the stranger they were originally called out to help? A false alarm with good intent.

Capsize training

A D class capsize-and-recovery demonstration in the training pool at RNLI College

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

A D class capsize-and-recovery demonstration in the training pool at RNLI College

‘If a capsize happens, they’ve done it before in a controlled, safe environment and they’re trained to know what to do. Experiencing being under the boat should make it less scary should it ever happen in real life, like it did on this rare occasion,’ says RNLI Trainer Alex Evans.

Capsize training is part of the Trainee Crew Course that takes place at RNLI College in Poole, Dorset. This is a well-rounded course that also covers sea survival, navigation, fire safety, man overboard, anchoring and towing. Before attending this course, crew members must have volunteered at a station for at least 6 months and passed several assessments.

Many RNLI lifeboats can self-right in the event of a capsize, but the small D class must be turned manually by the crew. In addition to the RNLI College training, two D class capsize training lifeboats travel from station to station for around a week every year to allow crew to practise in their own patch of water.

Lifeboat capsizes at sea are, thankfully, very rare occurrences these days. But with the right training and equipment, we are making sure that our volunteers are prepared for all eventualities – as Simon, Kyle and Daz were that day.

Crew capsize training: A quick guide:

  • Trainee Crew Course training takes place in the RNLI’s sea survival pool and wave tank (measuring 25m x 12.5m and 4m deep).
  • Crew jump into the water and must independently climb into the lifeboat.
  • They work together to turn the boat by standing on the side and leaning back to flip it upside down.
  • One by one, they go under the upturned boat to experience how this feels.
  • The crew correctly rig the line along the side of the boat.
  • They line up in weight order (lightest at the back, heaviest at the front) along the side to pull the rigging and re-right the boat.
  • It’s a team effort to push and pull everyone into the boat.
  • They throw out sea anchor to get in the correct position, boat head to sea.
  • Then it’s time to restart the engine, which is modified with a valve to drain water.
  • The crew then practise contacting the Coastguard with information.